Making the News

Press of Atlantic City

Originally Published:Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"I think this time there seems to be an acceptance or at least a resignation on behalf of the industry that this is it," said Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group.

Pennsylvania keeps tabs on smoking-ban efforts in Atlantic City

By DEREK HARPER
Press of Atlantic City

When Pennsylvania lawmakers make final touches to an anti-smoking bill this month, their decisions in Harrisburg could reverberate 170 miles away in Atlantic City.

"Atlantic City knows it has a lot of competition out there, and a lot of (gaming interests) point to the smoking ban as a reason for the recent downturn," said Michelle Holcomb, American Cancer Society spokeswoman. "If that's taken off the table, if Pennsylvania goes smoke-free as well, it would give them a better idea of where they stand."

Casino interests on both sides of the Delaware River have fought smoking bans in recent years, saying casinos on the other side would unfairly benefit.

But with Atlantic City Council and Pennsylvania state government both closing in on smoking bans, it would seem that argument could soon be off the table.

"I think this time there seems to be an acceptance or at least a resignation on behalf of the industry that this is it," said Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group.

A ban presents a difficult balancing act between health and economy, but Pennsylvania may have an easier time because of current bans in neighboring states, Casino Association of New Jersey President Joseph Corbo said.

But, he added, "we would urge all the northeastern states to consider treating the smoking laws in a similar manner and seek a resolution in a fashion similar to Atlantic City, where economic concerns were balanced with health concerns."

Nearby states started banning smoking several years ago, when Delaware included casinos in a comprehensive 2002 ban.

New York joined in July 2003, banning smoking everywhere, including racetrack casinos, or racinos, but not in Indian casinos. Connecticut did the same in April 2004. Weinert said Connecticut officials are now leaning on those casinos to eliminate smoking or face workplace-safety challenges.

Maryland, the latest nearby state to ban smoking, did so for most indoor settings Feb. 1.

New Jersey's initial smoking ban took effect April 15, 2006, but with an exemption for casino gaming floors carved out by state legislators. After flirting with an outright ban, Atlantic City Council tightened the law April 15, 2007, to allow smoking on no more than 25 percent of the floor. With the exception of smoking lounges, the new ordinance City Council has introduced would eliminate casino smoking by Oct. 15.

City Councilman Bruce Ward, one of the strongest advocates for the local ban, said he hasn't kept up with Pennsylvania legislation, but for Atlantic City he wants to "put it to rest on April 23."

Proposed state legislation to close the loophole died at the end of the last session and was reintroduced in both houses Jan. 8. While it has 22 sponsors and co-sponsors, it has not come up for a vote in either house's health committee.

In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia's May 2007 ban survived a Commonwealth Court challenge that knocked out similar bans in other cities. That means the city's proposed slot parlors will be smoke-free.

The General Assembly is working on a statewide ban, but nothing yet is definite. A proposal by Representative Michael Gerber, D-Montgomery, would have included the nascent casino industry in its smoking ban.

But because the Senate added a host of exemptions in its bill, including permitting smoking on 25 percent of the casino floor, lawmakers in both houses are expected to come up with a final proposal later this month.

And they're keeping an eye on Atlantic City, Gerber aide Dan Wiedemer said. "The impact of any Atlantic City votes will be tremendous on whatever Pennsylvania legislation passes."

Gerber said casino advocates spoke out against his bill, saying it would put the casinos at a competitive disadvantage to Atlantic City. "While I didn't buy that argument, this change that is being enacted (by Atlantic City) at the council level certainly takes that argument off the table."

In the meantime, advocates and activists said they looked forward to casinos in both states turning largely smoke free in the coming months.

Said Karen Blumenfeld of the New Jersey Group Against Smoking, "This is a bold and courageous move that has been needed for some time now."

To e-mail Derek Harper at The Press:

[email protected]

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